Music
2:51 am
Thu November 22, 2012

'Don Giovanni' To 'Nixon In China': Holiday Feasts In Opera

Originally published on Thu November 22, 2012 3:45 am

As you prepare to feast upon cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and your choice of entree this Thanksgiving, there's also an operatic feast to be had. Classical commentator Miles Hoffman joins NPR's Renee Montagne to take us through a five-course musical meal, from the insatiable hunger of a starving trio during "Musetta's Waltz" in Puccini's La Bohème to the fiery dinner scene in Mozart's Don Giovanni to the joyous state banquet heard in John Adams' Nixon in China.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We have a Thanksgiving tradition here at MORNING EDITION, savoring the musical side of the holiday with Miles Hoffman - who is, of course, our musical commentator. In years past, we've heard drum-sticks. We've heard second helpings - that would encores - classical music turkeys, plus we've shared a fantasy family dinner with history's greatest composers. This year, its musical feasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE MANY REND THE SKIES")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) The many rend the skies with loud applause.

MONTAGNE: This is from George Frideric Handel's "Alexander's Feast," or "The Power of Music."

And, Miles, pull up a chair. Happy Thanksgiving.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Happy Thanksgiving to you, and pull up a plate.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, let's start with turkey. Operas are brimming with banquets. So let's start there. Are there turkeys to be had?

HOFFMAN: There's one that I know of one, Renee. There's one. In the big dinner scene at the beginning of Act II of Puccini's opera "La Boheme," very famous opera, after the starving philosopher, Colline, orders salami, and before the starving musician, Schaunard, orders lobster, the starving painter, Marcello, actually orders a turkey. But, in fact, it's Marcello's flirtatious girlfriend, Musetta, who steals the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MUSETTA'S WALTZ")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: I think: Who would notice the turkey? You're so busy listening to one of the most classic moments in all of classical music.

HOFFMAN: That's "Musetta's Waltz," Renee. Yeah, that's from Puccini's "La Boheme," and it's a famous aria in which Musetta describes how happy it makes her to know that when she's out walking, people examine her beauty from head to toe. But I should emphasize that while Musetta is singing, her friends keep eating.

MONTAGNE: Well, what else might one encounter at a musical feast, besides the turkey?

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Well, it kind of depends on the feast, Renee. First of all, in addition to food, you'll have drink. And the thing is, you would expect these scenes to be happy scenes. But it doesn't always work that way. In one of Mozart's operas, in fact - speaking of things you might encounter - he includes a dinner scene in which a very unhappy ghost shows up, the ghost of the Commendatore, or the Commander. This is in Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni." Although, to be more accurate, the ghost is in the form of a stone statue that comes to life.

MONTAGNE: And comes to life just in time to eat dinner?

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore at the beginning of the opera. And later, he has his servant, Leporello, invite the statue to dinner. This is opera, don't forget. And the dinner is really just a sumptuous meal for one, Don Giovanni himself. He's arranged for good food, good music, and everything at this dinner starts off very, very happily.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON GIOVANNI")

HOFFMAN: But then, Renee, while Don Giovanni is enjoying his dinner, the statue appears. He has taken Don Giovanni up on the invitation.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON GIOVANNI")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Sounds a little less inviting now, Miles.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Well, it becomes very inviting, because what happens is that the statue returns the favor and invites Don Giovanni to come to his place, the statue's place, for dinner. And Don Giovanni says he's not a coward. He accepts. He takes the statue's hand, and he disappears into the fiery pit.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON GIOVANNI")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, I think we can safely say that Don Giovanni will be having a hot dinner.

HOFFMAN: Yes, very hot.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But surely, on this Thanksgiving morning, you can offer us a happy operatic meal.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I think so. You know, if we jump to the late 20th century, Renee, there's a very celebratory banquet scene in the John Adams opera "Nixon in China." And in this scene, Zhou Enlai and President Nixon toast each other at the banquet, and everybody seems very happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "NIXON IN CHINA")

HOFFMAN: Twentieth century music, Renee, from the mid-1980s, that's the music of John Adams, the banquet scene from his opera, "Nixon in China."

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, on this Thanksgiving Day, how about some festive music to listen to, as we toil away preparing the holiday banquets that we'll all be putting on the tables later today?

HOFFMAN: Here's a section from an oratorio by the English composer William Walton. And it's a feast piece. It's called "Belshazzar's Feast," and I think the final chorus of that piece will definitely put us in a festive mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BELSHAZZAR'S FEAST)

MONTAGNE: A holiday feast. Miles, a toast to you and your family this Thanksgiving.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. A happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BELSHAZZAR'S FEAST)

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion," and a regular on our program.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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